The Misery of Flight (3)
I go back to school. It’s an old convent with toothless nuns still lingering in the halls, seemingly floating half an inch above the ground as they go about their business. The headmistress wants to make sure I’ll be a good fit, so she asks me if I know how to spell balloon, chicken and doctor; then she brings out a table with lots of numbers and I don’t know what multiplication is and the burning rises through my cheeks blooming like a flower of shame in a thunderstorm.
I bow my head, fighting back tears and then it’s over. My two brothers try to explain five times four five times five on the ride back home while I peer through the grimy bus window, at the yellowing leaves that litter the sidewalk; the bikes cut through like using a hair dryer on a balding man’s head.
Class starts the very next day, and the teacher says she’s native Australian but her words are playdough with unexpected specks of color hiding in the midst of every sentence. We’re asked to answer mathematical questions with figures, so when I see three plus six I draw nine triangles as neatly as I can. Teacher glimpses over my shoulder as I strenuously cram hieroglyphs into my answer sheet (why is there so little room?) and then a cry erupts from her lips like a car alarm, only louder, shrill and more menacing.
I am buried in an avalanche of anger.
And then recess comes, and I sit alone on a tree stump with a sick feeling for company, while all these strange children play soccer - only it’s called football - or fight over the tire swings. I don’t like soccer, because I always lose. There are ant hills poking out from the clayish dirt, and spindly processions where each worker has a purpose. I stare for as long as I can, and when the bell rings I pretend not to hear. The playground is drained of noise; relishing in this odd silence I trudge my way back inside.
Once home, I clutch a pillow and let the sobs climb past the steep hill in my throat. Each heavy tear falls faster than the one before, while I stare at the patterns of wet on the fabric, merging with each other into a single amorphous stain. I think of the House, and the red bricks, and the magnolia tree. Each petal’s loving, pungent smell being grinded into earth, as I lay here crying.
Days shorten into wisps of sun that we can barely catch before they’re gone. Nine hours, eight hours, seven hours of light until we’re all frazzled messes pondering the vapor trails of breath at five A.M, while even the buses seem to have frozen solid.
One afternoon, we get home from school, scrambling up to the top of the stairs and Mom is standing there with red eyes holding a handkerchief limply by her side. Votre grand-mère est morte ce matin* she says in between two sobs, and we rush inside wailing like professional mourners, collapsing at the foot of the living room couch as she tries to encircle us with her arms. There are words about remembrance, elle est partie dans son sommeil**, and then words I can barely make out, about deep, pervasive mal-de-vivre and sleeping pills. We are told to go play outside, and on the steps leading to the street, Peter pauses and says, “I feel sad today”. I can only nod in agreement as we kick the ball out onto the yellow winter grass.
Mom and Dad fly to France for the funeral a few days later, and we are placed in the care of friends; they’re celebrating Saint Nicholas so we each get a toy in a coarse red stocking. Mine is an electric Snoopy plane, which is meant to hang on the ceiling, although I know that’ll never happen because we can’t bore any holes that weren’t already there. I flick the switch and watch the rotor spin, trying to picture myself skimming through the stratosphere and shaking clouds out of my goggles with the unthinking gestures of habit. Mr. and Mrs. Bochstein have two sons of their own, and when the night falls we all share soft caramels and chewing gum, giggling from the rush of petty thievery in our sleeping bags.
At school, I make a friend. Her name is Natasha, she’s Russian. She’s also taller than me, and limber, with short, auburn hair feathering across parchment paper skin. When I look at her forearms I can see the blue veins running deep like the Chesapeake Bay after a snowstorm. Her desk faces away from me and so I mostly stare at her funny sweaters with prancing reindeers and industrious little elves. Recess comes, we go outside and look for ants but it’s December and they’re all hiding underground in their winter-proof bunkers. So we settle for imaginary creatures instead. She says she’s also new and I know she doesn’t like playing the other girls’ games because they talk about glitter and ponies, huddling in tightly knit covens that shift across the playground with small, measured steps. One time, she tells me come along I found something and we run behind the dumpsters and there’s a slow moth on the ground, with wings the color of frozen bark; she takes a glove off her hand and gestures forward, so I do the same and as the winter moth crawls from one to the other our fingers touch for the briefest of instants, and I feel a lightning bolt course through my arm into my chest, connecting all the Christmas lights into a maze of blinking patterns that fade as my breath returns.
The moth tests its wingspan, and I wonder at the prickle of its legs how something so small could be so determined to fly.
Snow falls and Christmas trees litter the sidewalk, dropping pine needles with every gust of wind. While we wait for our bus, the flurry of bikes sounds like a rainstick orchestra brushing up against the branches. I spend recess indoors, in the dimly lit halls where I know no one will walk by and ask me why aren’t you playing with the other children? Ignoring the obvious fact that I don’t want to, because it’s easier this way. I let my hands meet my face and together they mourn Grandma, because I would never get to know her beyond the few times we’d visited for the holidays, and my first encounter with death is a story of regret. I remember the act of family photos, and the way she’d sighed, because I don’t even know how to smile any more, and those words echo time and time again when I see myself in the mirror and wonder who I am.
Mom says I need a hobby, so I try violin but the teacher doesn’t seem inclined to teaching, and I don’t seem inclined to learning. I see an ad for saxophone lessons; when I bring it up at dinner they all share a meaningful glance, and on Wednesday afternoon we go to a music shop with rows of guitars like soldiers in a silent fanfare. They pick one out for me, with the express promise that I’ll make it worthwhile. At home, I insert the instructional CD into my portable radio, and try following along with the book, struggling to fret E D C D E E E as Auld Lang Syne marches on mercilessly.
Natasha coaxes me out of my shell and we play cats and dogs or climb the yew trees collecting berries for our secret stash. I dream of becoming a scientist and write about birds and squirrels in my special drawing book. The days get warmer, so I fill a transparent plastic cup with dirt, gravel and blades of grass, and a dozen ants are selected to participate in my study. They clamber on the soil, probing the walls of their prison and the protective film intended to keep them in; when one escapes during Math Class I hold back tears and mumble I’m sorry I’m sorry this is my fault before ending its fugitive streak with my heel. Soon, Natasha has her own plastic cup, and then others follow suit, and eventually, we’re committing full-on ant genocide, with our very own portable concentration camps, each attempting to create the conditions for a colony, praying for galleries to be dug overnight in the cold, loose soil. When the teacher finally catches on to our monstrous scheme, she sighs, and we are forced to return the contents of our makeshift terrariums back unto the earth.